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D'var Torah: Ki Tetze

About twelve years ago, David Noel Freedman, a preeminent biblical scholar and the general editor of the Anchor Bible, published an insightful study on how the theme of the Decalogue is dealt with throughout the historical books of the Bible. The book is The Nine Commandments (Doubleday).

Freedman’s thesis is stated in the introduction:

Hidden in the Bible is a previously unrecognized pattern of commandment violations, a pattern that has gone undetected for more than two thousand years. In the books spanning Exodus to Kings, the nation of Israel is presented to the reader as thoroughly defying its covenant with God by breaking each of the Ten Commandments, one by one, book by book, in order, until there are none—leaving God with only one choice: the destruction of the nation. After the last commandment is broken, the nation finds itself living on borrowed time. First the northern kingdom (called Israel) in 722 BCE and then the southern kingdom (called Judah) in 586 BCE is destroyed by the Assyrian and Babylonian armies, respectively. Upon the defeat of the southern kingdom, Jerusalem is razed, the Temple, the very dwelling place of God, is destroyed, and the survivors, God’s “chosen people,” are exiled, no longer to live securely in their “Promised Land.”

Freedman believes that this underlying thread in the Bible gives evidence of a scholar of outstanding talent and ability, a “Master Weaver or Editor,” whom he identifies as Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch as the most likely candidate, who wove into Israel’s written history a message to the exiles from the destruction of Jerusalem that their exile was not a result of God abandoning Israel, but resulted from Israel’s abandonment of God by disobeying God’s commandments.

To follow Freedman’s argument, consider the materials that this Master Editor had to work with. The entire history of the Israelite people at the time of the exile was embodied in the five books of the Torah and the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: nine in all. This constitutes what Freedman calls the “Primary History” of Israel. (The division of Samuel and Kings into two volumes each resulted from their size; they were each too large to conveniently fit onto a single scroll so they were customarily written on two although they each represent a single book.)

Freedman has identified, for each of the commandments, the point in each book where that particular commandment was violated—where the text describing the infraction utilizes either the precise wording or intent of that commandment. He points out that Genesis and the first part of Exodus must be excluded since the Israelites could not be said to have violated a commandment that they had not yet been given. In order to fit nine commandments into nine books, he argues, the Editor has placed two closely related commandments into Exodus. The tenth commandment presents a special case as it deals with intent, not action, and Freedman discusses this last.

We are in Deuteronomy, and according to Freedman’s postulate, we should find in this book some kind of incident where the Fifth Commandment is violated. Let’s first review the prior commandments to see which events as described in earlier books link to the commandment violations, and then we'll look at violations of the subsequent commandments to see how Freedman's thesis develops.

First Commandment: You shall have no other gods before me.
Second Commandment: You shall not make for yourself an idol.

Violation of the first two commandments is a case of “two birds with one stone.” Virtually immediately after hearing God proclaim these two commandments at Sinai, the Israelites violate them. They have Aaron make them an idol and then worship it. Exodus 20:3–4 (Commandments 1 and 2) states in part, “You shall not make for yourself an idol…nor bow to it.” God informs Moses of the people’s violation thus: “They have made for themselves a molten calf and have bowed down to it…” The punishment for this violation was that all of the participants in the worship of the idol were put to death by all of the faithful Levites.

Third Commandment: You shall not lift up the name of YHVH your God in vain.

In narrating the case of blasphemy told in Leviticus (24:10–17), the violator is apprehended and is brought with witnesses to Moses who inquires of God as to the punishment. The punishment is to be death by stoning and all the people are to participate. This is one of the hallmarks of this thread of commandment violation—the transgressions chosen as the Editor’s examples are each so great that the sin reflects on the entire population, who must remove the stain of the sin by participating in its punishment.

Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

The violation of this commandment (Num. 15:32-36) exactly mirrors the preceding one: the violation is witnessed, the transgressor is apprehended, brought to Moses, and the punishment is decreed, with the community again participating in its enactment.

Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and mother.

This Commandment is covered close to the beginning of today’s parashah (Deut. 21:18–21). Although the passages that contain the description of the punishment for a disobedient child do not relate a specific incident, it establishes the law in this matter. The infraction occurs with the parents acting as the witnesses; the inclusion of the mother is unique here since in all legal matters, only the men have legal standing and can act as witnesses. The language exactly parallels the commandment, “father and mother.” The case is brought for judgment, and the sentence (again, death by stoning) is carried out. Freedman illustrates convincingly how this instance fits his thesis.

Now we come to an interesting situation: we must determine the order of the next three commandments as they were known in antiquity. In Hebrew each comprise only two words: “lo,” (the negative participle), and the action form of the verb, “to murder,” “to commit adultery,” “to steal.” That is the order that is found in both recitations of the Decalogue in Exodus and Deuteronomy. However, alternate sequences to this order are known, possibly reflecting slightly different traditions of the Commandments. The Septuagint places them in a different order, 6. Adultery; 7. Theft; and 8. Murder. Yet another order is known from Philo’s writings of the time (which is confirmed by a version found on a 2000 year-old papyrus document—the Nash Papyrus—from Egypt): 6. Adultery; 7. Murder; 8. Theft. Interestingly, three independent passages in the Christian Bible use Philo’s sequence.

Turning back to the Hebrew Bible, we find in Hosea 4:2 a list of transgressions that includes “lying, swearing, murdering, stealing, and committing adultery.” And finally, when Jeremiah chastises the people’s behavior in Jer. 7:9, he says, “Would you steal, murder, commit adultery…?” It would seem that the order for these particular commandments was not immutable and slightly different orders were used and accepted. In fact, the construction used by Jeremiah could be additional evidence that either he or Baruch was the “Master Editor,” as either would have used the order with which they were most familiar.

Sixth Commandment: You shall not steal.

One passage in the Bible where disobeying a direct order about stealing property stands out because of the seemingly disproportionate punishment for the offense. In Joshua 6:18–19 the people are specifically told that the spoils of Jericho are to be reserved for God. In Jos. 7:11, God tells Joshua that a theft of the dedicated property has occurred, and in Jos. 7:20–26 the perpetrator, Achan, confesses. Notice the hallmark of the punishment: that all the people participate. Notice also the idea of “karet,” “cutting off,” the killing all of the living generations of the perpetrator so that he has no progeny. This punishment was reserved only for the worst of crimes against God.

Seventh Commandment: You shall not murder.

There are plenty of murders in Judges; indeed, there are plenty in the Bible to this point. What murder could possibly qualify as warranting mention as a Commandment violation? One incident, found at the end of Judges (Jdg. 19–21), stands out for its graphic detail and gruesomeness. This is the story of the murder of the Levite’s concubine. More important, it’s actually the first time that any form of the Hebrew word for “murder,” retzach, is used in narrative since it was used in the giving of the Ten Commandments. Up to this book, the word retzach is used only in the Decalogue and in the Priestly laws of Numbers and is never used in conjunction with war. In narrative the words nakah (e.g., what Moses did to the Egyptian overseer) and harag (e.g., what Cain did to Abel) are used for killing and murder. The murder offense is committed by residents of a Benjaminite town and the punishment involves the near-extinction of the entire tribe by an army composed of the other tribes—yet another example of “karet” resulting in an extreme punishment.

Eighth Commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

Although adultery stories are quite common in the Bible, perhaps the most famous one is the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). The text goes to great lengths to assure the reader that, while in other cases of putative adultery there could possibly be a question of fact, knowledge, or intent, in this particular case there could be absolutely no doubt. David is portrayed as fully knowing that he is violating this commandment. His punishment, which was for murder as well as adultery, while not immediately lethal (to David—the son of his adulterous union dies), David’s family now begins to self-destruct with the rape of his daughter by his oldest son who is then murdered by another son, who in turn revolts and is killed… in short, Nathan’s prophesy that “the sword shall never depart from your [David’s] house” becomes fulfilled.

Ninth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness.

If this commandment referred to lying, then we should be in trouble finding an appropriate biblical example that would rise to the level of a commandment transgression, since the number of lies told in the Bible is so great. False witness means to give false testimony that results in harm to another person. Possibly the most egregious example of false witness in the Bible may be found in Kings, with the story of the terrible crime committed by Jezebel and Ahab (1 Ki. 21) in the taking of Nabeth’s vineyard. In order to ensure that Nabeth and all his heirs are eliminated so a relative can’t inherit the property, Jezebel uses the Israelite “karet” law, and charges Nabeth with blasphemy against God and king. Jezebel produces the required two witnesses and the sentence of karet is enacted, and Nabeth’s real estate passes to the king according to law.

Although the punishment for this crime doesn’t come quickly, it is thorough. Elijah brings Ahab a message from God, that “ the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Nabeth, the dogs will lick your own blood” and also that God will end Ahab’s dynasty. Soon Ahab is killed in battle and when his body is returned in his chariot, it stops in the field where Nabeth was killed and dogs lick up his blood, fulfilling part of the prophecy. Soon after this, in the rebellion that ended Ahab’s dynasty, his son was killed and Jezebel was thrown from the palace window, her body trampled by horses and the remains eaten by dogs, fulfilling the rest of the prophecy.

Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet.

What of the tenth commandment? This commandment is not about action, it’s about intent. Where are the violations of this commandment in the Bible? Actually, they are everywhere. Without the motivation of “coveting,” the transgressions of many of the other commandments would not have occurred. Thus, as Freedman points out, the tenth commandment is a supplement to the previous commandments.

Freedman’s thesis is interesting, provocative, and insightful. It implies that the redaction of the Torah was as much a political and social commentary as a religious work. But in the middle of the first millennium BCE, there wasn’t much differentiating between politics, ethics, and religion.

Shabbat shalom.

September 2012

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